During the recent recession, there was good money to be made in agriculture jobs in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Yet, despite hourly rates that reached $20 an hour, few American workers applied. “Despite the huge pool of unemployed people, no one came out,” says Jeffrey M., the owner of a prominent southern Oregon vineyard. He has asked that his full name not be publicized, because he does not want his immigrant workforce to feel threatened.
The lack of interest is even worse in the current economy, due to low unemployment. “I’m bothered by the myth that undocumented immigrants are taking away jobs from Americans,” he says. “That’s just not true. These are jobs that Americans just don’t want. “
If you deported all the workers, you’d see crop failure on a level you’ve never seen before.
Like many of his fellow growers, Jeffrey is dependent on immigrant labor. In Oregon alone, foreign-born workers account for 73 percent of the agricultural labor force. Nationwide, immigrant farmworkers account for more than half of field and crop workers. “If you deported all the workers, you’d see crop failure on a level you’ve never seen before,” says Jeffrey. “You’d see huge numbers of businesses going under.”
Jeffrey says many growers are anxiously awaiting immigration reform that would give them access to a reliable and legal labor pool. The U.S. government’s current guest-worker program is not flexible enough for the fickle nature of grape growing. “We’re dictated by the seasons,” he says. “This year was so cold and wet that our season was delayed by two weeks.” If he hires workers via the H-2A guest-worker program, he has to commit to them for a specific period of time. Because his labor needs vary widely week by week, he cannot afford to pay workers when there is no work to do. “The work is stop-and-start, but with H-2A, you can’t lay them off,” he says. “In agriculture, your profit margins are paper thin, and you can’t afford to lose huge amounts of money. The program just doesn’t work for us at all.”
Jeffrey also questions the wisdom of bringing up workers from Mexico instead of providing a pathway for legal residency for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. “We already have a good labor force here. Our people live here, and they have the flexibility that you can’t get with H-2A,” he says. “They’re an amazing group of people. They’re extremely family-oriented and church-going. They’re totally reliable and have a great work ethic. They embody everything we hold dear.”